WASHINGTON — With Israel’s planned Gaza pullout just weeks away, officials in Jerusalem and Washington fear that either Hezbollah attacks or inept Palestinian Authority policing could dash hopes for an orderly withdrawal.
Israeli and American officials are cautioning that Hezbollah militants in Lebanon may be trying to open a “second front” to complicate Jerusalem’s plan to dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. Last week, the Bush administration’s special security envoy to the P.A., William Ward, told a Senate committee that the Palestinian security forces are not yet ready to fight terrorists in Gaza or to effectively enforce law enforcement.
“You have the ingredients of a very hot summer,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The point is that — without making any moral equivalence — you do have a situation where rejectionists on both sides have an interest in trying to torpedo this disengagement, at a time when the Palestinian Authority’s capability and political will to thwart the Palestinian rejectionists is somewhat limited and remains in doubt.”
While the Palestinians’ lack of preparedness is causing concern in Jerusalem and Washington, the biggest wild card is the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah, according to Israeli officials. Hezbollah has recently stepped up its efforts to agitate anti-Israeli violence in the West Bank, and is “significantly raising the temperature on the northern border,” in the words of an Israeli diplomat. Last week, a five-person Hezbollah terrorist squad crossed the Israel-Lebanon border near Har Dov, apparently in an attempt to abduct Israeli soldiers. Once the gunmen were spotted and withdrew into Lebanon, Hezbollah artillery shelled Israeli military posts in Har Dov.
“We are not sure what Hezbollah is up to — whether they have the Lebanese political arena in mind or the disengagement — but this is cause for concern,” an Israeli diplomat said.
“Things will become very complicated,” the diplomat said, “if the [Israeli military] has to confront Lebanese and Palestinian militants as it handles the settlers in mid-August.”
Palestinian preparedness was the main issue at June 30 hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Ward offered a sobering account of the state of the Palestinian security services.
At one point, he was asked if the Palestinian security apparatus is ready to enforce the law and fight terrorism in Gaza. He replied, “That transformation will take time, and it does not currently exist.” Ward said that the P.A. has yet to form a force that would be recruited from within the security apparatus to take over policing responsibilities once Israel pulls out of Gaza. “That force is being recruited,” Ward said, “and we continue to look for ways to get them basic training.”
Ward shocked members of the committee when he reported that of the “58,000-plus members” of the Palestinian security forces on the payroll of the P.A., only “20,000 to 22,000 of those folks actually show up to work.” In effect, he said, the Palestinian security apparatus has become a “social welfare net.”
In what was the most detailed public discussion of this issue by an American official in recent years, Ward said that efforts to reform the Palestinian security services are under way. However, his remarks clearly indicated that it would be very difficult — if not impossible — to have them ready to take over by mid-August, the deadline set for Israel’s withdrawal.
Ward said that the key to transforming the Palestinian security forces is shifting the loyalty of their members from individuals — local strongmen and chieftains — to the institutions of the P.A. Such a change, he said, is the only way to establish a centralized chain-of-command. “That has not taken hold,” Ward said, adding, “No doubt this will be a long-term proposition.” In addition, he said, basic needs, such as clothing, vehicles and means of communications are lacking.
Ward testified together with C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Both officials were asked to comment on efforts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to co-opt rather than confront Islamist terrorist organizations. Both said that they accepted this strategy based on the realization that Abbas’s security forces are unprepared to carry out an aggressive campaign to disarm terrorists. Ward argued that Abbas’s truce agreement with Hamas “has created an atmosphere that is allowing other things that are important to occur.”
“I think, for now, it seems to be working,” Ward said. “And we need something to be working right now.”
On Tuesday, Hamas officially rejected Abbas’s invitation to join his Cabinet and create a “national security government” before Israel’s withdrawal.
While senators grilled Ward on Palestinian security preparedness, Senators demanded answers from Welch about whether Israel is fulfilling its peace-process commitments. In particular, lawmakers pressed the State Department official over Israel’s progress in halting settlement activity in the West Bank, dismantling illegal settlements and rerouting the West Bank security fence to minimize the impact on the Palestinian population.
Though Welch described these issues as “concerns,” he made it clear that the administration has chosen not to lock horns with Israel over them in the interest of a smooth Gaza withdrawal.
Senators expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress on the ground in preparation for the pullout.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the former Democratic presidential candidate, asked in frustration, “How can we let so many months go by?” And Kerry asked Ward, “Does it frustrate you at all?”
Palestinian progress on the security front may be slow, but the Bush administration has other hopes for maintaining stability in Gaza during the disengagement, said Aaron David Miller, former senior State Department adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
“The [administration’s] assumption is that between what the Palestinians have — inadequate so it may be — Egyptian support, and Hamas’s continued acquiescence or support for the ceasefire, the Palestinians will be able to muddle through” the pullout, said Miller, outgoing president of the Seeds of Peace youth organization.
Muddling through, Miller added, is the best that can realistically be expected of the Palestinians.
Israeli officials have been complaining recently, in private conversations, that the Bush administration’s acquiescence to Abbas’s strategy of co-opting Hamas is damaging.
“The Palestinians can and should do more” to confront terrorism, said an Israeli diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Instead of asserting himself, Abbas is projecting weakness, and that weakness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” The official said that Israel has recently shared some pinpointed anti-terrorism data with the Palestinian security services, including the location of Kassam-rocket squads that are ready for launching into Israel. Palestinian security officials, the diplomat said, either ignored the information or went out to talk with the launchers, who went ahead with the launch moments later.
“We argue that Abbas will be stronger if he asserts his power, not if people keep accommodating his weakness,” the Israeli diplomat said. This week, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli Cabinet, according to an official government communiqué, that “no real progress” has been achieved in Palestinian counter-terrorism efforts. He frustratedly noted Abbas’s attempts to open the P.A.’s political doors to Hamas.